By Mike Mount
A funny thing happened to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on his trip to Asia this week. He became a secretary of State of sorts. While he was going to a major regional defense conference to sell the new U.S. plan to shift more military focus toward the Asia-Pacific region, he was actually selling a diplomatic plan for the United States.
On the surface it looks very much like a Pentagon plan to bolster troops and equipment to the region. Panetta had plenty of defense talk at the Shangri-La Dialogue conference in Singapore to back that up.
"Over the next few years we will increase the number and the size of our exercises in the Pacific. We will also increase and more widely distribute our port visits, including in the important Indian Ocean region," Panetta told the conference-goers, who were from all over Asia.
"And by 2020 the Navy will re-posture its forces from today's roughly 50/50 percent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about a 60/40 split between those oceans. That will include six aircraft carriers in this region, a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships and submarines," he said.
But while Panetta extolled the virtues of the "pivot," the rebalance of U.S. forces to the Asia-Pacific region, below the surface very little will be changing militarily. Despite much of the rhetoric focusing on a build-up of forces to face off with a growing threat from China, it's more about Asia rise in importance overall. said Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"It's the place to be," he said.
"We are entering a period where the U.S. is really becoming more diplomatically and politically engaged in Southeast Asia, which is something the U.S. really has not done before," Cha said.
All in all, these moves will represent little change to the size of the U.S. military force in Asia, but will posture it for more mobility and better access to the regions where the United States is still very active, Cha said.
Ahead of Panetta's trip, the United States announced the movement of Marines from the southern Japanese island of Okinawa to the U.S. southern Pacific territory of Guam. The move ended much of the controversy in Japan over the Marines, who were thought to have overstayed their welcome. There had been a U.S. base there since the end of World War II.
In Korea, thousands of U.S. troops will be moving out of the center of the capital city of Seoul to garrisons that are better suited for current U.S. and Korean military needs.
In Australia, the United States has rotating Marine units in the northern part of the country for the first time.
All the moves update Cold War postures the United States has had in the region and required new strategies, but the moves were what the United States has to have in the region, customized military relationships that show each country the United States is invested and paying attention to its needs, Cha said.
In Vietnam, Panetta was slowly trying to do the same, building a customized military relationship, and showing the United States will there for Vietnam. But because there is not a longstanding relationship, that trust will take some time.
While at the Singapore conference, Panetta said the new Pentagon effort will also be placing a premium on building partnerships with the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.
"For the U.S., being able to deploy out of this part of the world in many ways is important. It's important that the force can get to Northeast Asia as well as swing through Southeast Asia as well as to get into the Indian Ocean," Cha said.
Others said the Pentagon is not telling the whole story, and this is not all about diplomacy.
"The administration's insistence that this is not really all about China is somewhat disingenuous," said Michael Mazza, a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington research group.
"Chinese military modernization and its behavior in recent years, that is really driving our concerns with stability in the region," Mazza said.
In addition to the well publicized refurbished former Russian aircraft carrier the Chinese Navy has announced as its first, and the anti-carrier missiles the country is stockpiling, the Chinese are establishing a new range of ground, sea and air capabilities that are designed to hold off the United States.
If the Chinese are able to tie these capabilities together it will allow them to more easily pursue unification of Taiwan, their goals in the South China Sea and on the Korean peninsula, according to Mazza.
China's heavy-handed attitude in the region has made neighbors and regional countries worried. The Philippines is struggling with territorial rights over the Scarborough Shoals and China claims a large swath of water as its own in the South China Sea despite protests from at least six other countries.
While the United States is starting new plans to be more politically and diplomatically active in Southeast Asia, China is also trying to get in the game and has been cozying up to the same countries as the United States as it expands its influence in Southeast Asia. The relationship can seem attractive to these countries as they realize there are benefits to relationships with both the United States and China, economically and militarily.
Cha said that will not add up to military conflict between the two superpowers, but, "We are going to see a lot more activity, political and diplomatic competition in Southeast Asia as a result of this rebalance."
While Mazza thinks the Pentagon's rebalance plan is a sound one overall, the severe budget cuts facing the military will not allow the United States to follow through with its goals, leaving the United States in a vulnerable position inside Asia, despite Panetta's assurances.
Such a collapse militarily and diplomatically could be disastrous as the region is key to billions of dollars worth of trading and many of the countries are economic boom towns for U.S. investments.
"The air-sea battle, key to the rebalance plan against a threat from China, is a very capital-intensive effort and requires a lot of high-tech capabilities and the $500 million in budget cuts over the next 10 years are weakening our ability to carry out those plans," Mazza said.
China has been closely and quietly watching the U.S. plans unfold, casting a wary eye.
"All sides should strive to maintain and promote regional peace, stability and development," said Liu Weimin, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, at a press conference this week. "Deliberate emphasis on military and security agendas, and strengthening military deployment and alliances are not in step with the times."
Weimin noted the region is where Chinese and American interests "converge the most."
"We welcome the United States to play a constructive role in the region, and hope the U.S. side will respect the interests of other relevant parties in Asia-Pacific including China," Weimin said.